E-bikes are Recharging Cycling

E-bikes, or electric bicycles, have recently exploded in popularity. The most obvious reason for that, as anyone who’s ridden one knows, is simply that e-bikes are fun to ride. They are true smile generators. It’s so great to watch someone experience an e-bike for the first time. To continue to grow sales in this segment, the e-bike industry simply needs to get more butts on e-bikes and watch the magic happen.

COVID had a negative financial impact on many industries, but bicycling exploded during the pandemic. Riding bikes was a great way for folks to get outside safely as we were forced to live in a more isolated society. People were dusting off bikes that had sat in the back of their garages for decades, and shops were selling through their inventory with no way to replenish due to supply chain shortages. It’s been a bicycling renaissance!

The pandemic biking boom introduced a lot of people to e-bikes for the first time. Many urban dwellers were too nervous to ride buses or trains, which helped drive interest in riding a bike for transportation.

Looking to reach a destination efficiently and not get sweaty, e-bikes became an obvious solution. E-bike sales really took off and are still booming, becoming the fastest-growing segment in the bike market.

On a daily basis, parents are riding e-bikes with their kids on the back for daycare or school drop-off, then continuing on to the office or to run errands. Seniors are enjoying the benefits of exercise with a little boost from the bike’s motor. Urban riders can often get where they’re going as efficiently as in a car but without the hassle of parking.

And there’s no slowing down in sight for this trend. It is estimated that Americans will purchase more than one million e-bikes in the coming year. And even as we’re learning to live with the pandemic, rising fuel costs continue to bring new riders to the e-bike market.

This is a good thing on many levels.

E-bikes are good for the environment

Increased ridership of e-bikes in the U.S. are a boon to fighting climate change. With wildfires, drought, and floods taking place beyond their traditional “seasons” across the country and around the world, there’s no doubt that we are in a climate crisis. An e-bike can go up to 70 times as far as a 30 mpg gas-powered car per pound of climate emissions. They’re also 20 times more efficient than an electric car.

According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Americans take over 1 billion car trips a day. That’s a staggering number. It is estimated that 45% of those trips are for shopping and errands, with another 27% for social or recreational trips, such as meeting up with friends.

E-bikes can easily replace many local car trips, which are the largest source of transportation-based carbon emissions according to PeopleForBikes. Here in Sacramento, 57% of our carbon emissions are from vehicles. With almost half of urban car trips estimated to be 3 miles or less in length, imagine the local air quality improvement if just 10% of those trips were converted from single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) to e-bike.       

E-bikes are good for your health

Science has shown that exercising and just being in the great outdoors is beneficial to both one’s physical and mental health.

Given all the different types of e-bikes on the market (more on that below), it can be difficult to get an exact measure on the physical benefits of riding an e-bike. When e-bikes first hit the market, cycling “purists” were quick to label riding an e-bike as “cheating.”

But numerous studies have shown that pedaling an e-bike does indeed require physical exertion and is beneficial to your health. One reason for that is because people are riding e-bikes farther and more frequently than they would a standard bike, equalizing the expended effort overall.

E-bikes are good for the economy

As stated above, e-bike sales are on fire. In addition to industry sales, e-bikes are also becoming more popular as a draw for tourism dollars. While many Americans may not consider touring a city by bike, touring a city by e-bike is much more appealing. Rental shops and local guided tour leaders say that demand for e-bikes continues to build.

We’ve also seen bikeshare programs across the country adopting e-bikes for both locals and tourists to enjoy, including here in Sacramento.

Sustainable tourism outfits are also seeing an increase in e-bike related travel and tours. And “traditional” bike touring companies in the U.S. and Europe are now offering e-bikes to keep aging riders engaged (and spending).

E-bikes are good for all cyclists

First-time purchasers of e-bikes are often adults who have not ridden a bike since getting that coveted drivers’ license at 16 years old. This increased ridership is great news for many reasons.

It can obviously help grow the voice of the bike advocacy movement, which strengthens the push for better and safer bicycling for everyone.

It helps keep our population healthier, less stressed out, and happier.

And perhaps most importantly, it gets drivers on two wheels. E-bike riders are often people who have not ridden a bike in decades, but they’ve almost certainly driven a car in that time. The exposure educates drivers on a cyclist’s perspective. The more people who experience it, the more safe and courteous behavior it should bring to our roads. That’s a win for everyone who rides.

Ready to buy?

E-bikes have come a long way, quickly. The industry has seen a rise in quality and are now able to mass produce (supply chain issues aside) the best product choice for consumers. As with most things, there’s a wide range of e-bike options with a correspondingly wide price range.

The first factor to consider when choosing an e-bike is which “class” of bike makes the most sense for your needs and how/where you plan to ride.

Class I e-bikes have a motor that only engages when the cyclist is pedaling. This is what’s known as a “pedal assist” bike. Class I bikes have a maximum speed of 20 mph with the motor engaged. This means they can go faster on a downhill, but the motor will not engage over speeds of 20 mph.

Class II e-bikes also have a throttle which makes the bike accelerate without pedaling. The motors on these bikes also top out at a maximum speed of 20 mph when using pedal assist or the throttle.

Class III e-bikes have a maximum speed of 28 mph with pedal assist. They traditionally do not have a throttle. Class III bikes are regulated more heavily by some states, including California, where you must wear a helmet and be 17 years of age or older.

When selecting which e-bike is right for you, consider where you plan to ride. Not all classes of e-bikes are allowed on trails or even local multi-use paths. Class I e-bikes are the least regulated.

Also, how far do you plan to ride? Using a throttle will drain the battery faster and can limit your range. But some riders find the quick acceleration from a throttle helps to keep them safer and moving with traffic in urban settings.

Where will you store your bike? Since e-bikes have a motor and battery, they are heavier than a standard bike. Getting them up and down stairs can be a challenge.

Will you be biking for utilitarian purposes or recreationally? E-bikes now range from full-on cargo bikes to more subtle road bike designs with internal batteries. You can find bikes with children’s seats, storage racks and panniers/bags for shopping trips, and cargo capacity for urban delivery routes.

At this point, there’s really something for everyone on the market.

Sherry M. on her new Yuba Cargo e-bike, the grand prize from May is Bike Month 2022. Photo: Deb Banks

E-bike cost analysis

E-bikes are more mechanically complex than a regular bicycle, and that ups the price tag. However, after the initial investment in the bike, e-bikes are cheap to run. According to a recent study by the climate action center, an e-bike typically costs less than a penny a mile to charge.

The biggest cost savings is comparing the penny-a-mile charge to filling up the gas tank in your car. Gasoline savings are significant when folks move traditional car errands to an e-bike. There is a trend—one we hope continues—of people who are finding that they can actually replace their car with an e-bike. This eliminates registration fees, insurance costs, and possibly car payments—which can run up to $10,000 annually—to easily justify the cost of an e-bike.

But the high price tag can make an e-bike out of reach for many, especially on lower-income individuals who rely on a bicycle as their sole means of transportation. The Inflation Revenue Act recently signed into law has many proposed climate benefits, but it failed to include e-bike incentives in the final version of the bill.

California has put forth an aggressive climate policy plan in the past year. Most recently, a bill was passed for a $1,000 refundable tax credit to Californians who don’t own vehicles and will apply to single earners up to $40,000 annually or joint filers making up to $60,000.

This tax credit would go a long way towards the initial purchase price of an e-bike, which is a barrier to entry for so many. The policy is a step towards increased transportation equity in our state, while also encouraging people to live car-free, reducing carbon emissions.

Are e-bikes the magic pill?

In many ways, they could be, but time will tell. E-bikes are real “excuse busters” for many who have cited a myriad of reasons as to why they view bike commuting as impractical. And given the demand in the market, Americans are obviously seeing the benefits of e-bikes.

Given that e-bikes can help our climate crisis, reduce congestion, provide physical and mental health benefits to riders, and grow the voice of bike advocacy, SABA is celebrating all that the e-bike brings to our movement.

Written by Amy Morfas, former deputy director of Bicycle Colorado and freelance writer at Inspired Content, LLC.

Update: The Climate Action Center is an amazing resource for all things e-bikes, including legislation nationwide, information about choosing, locking and purchasing an e-bike, and just about anything you want to know about e-bikes.